Friday, August 26, 2016

10 "best" hymns

In “I'm fed up with bad church music” — a Facebook group that I belong to — someone posted this morning a link to a blog posting provocatively entitled “The 10 Greatest Hymns of All-Time.” The author is a Toronto non-denominational pastor, so the list was surprisingly traditional:

  1. And Can It Be? by Charles Wesley
  2. A Mighty Fortress by Martin Luther
  3. All Hail the Power of Jesus’ Name by Edward Perronet.
  4. Oh, For a Thousand Tongues by Charles Wesley.
  5. When I Survey the Wondrous Cross by Isaac Watts.
  6. How Firm a Foundation by an unknown author.
  7. Holy, Holy, Holy by Reginald Heber.
  8. It Is Well With My Soul by Horatio Spafford.
  9. Abide With Me by Henry Francis Lyte.
  10. Amazing Grace by John Newton.
It’s actually a pretty good list, with many non-controversial choices. But if we are judging the entirety of a hymn (as he states he is) and not just the lyrics, then IMHO Wesley’s “Love Divine” (to the stately tune Hyfrodol) would displace his first-choice of Wesley hymns (to the forgettable tune Sagina).

It was actually his list of runners-up that was a little more controversial:
There are so many more that could easily have been on this list: “Crown Him with Many Crowns,” “For All the Saints,” “Guide Me, O Thou Great Jehovah,” “Rock of Ages,” “Christ the Lord is Risen Today”, “Take My Life and Let It Be,” “In Christ Alone,” and on and on.
It seems to me that any such list has to exclude Christmas and Easter, because it would be easy to make a list of 10 greatest Christmas or Easter hymns. “Crown Him with many crowns” seems like it belongs in this list.

But “In Christ Alone”? Is this a hymn that has survived (let alone will survive) the test of time? Even if I were going to pick a 21st century praise hymn, this doesn't belong on a list of hymns that are “universal and timeless”. Every performance I’ve heard (including one at a consecration) it came across as a sappy pop song rather than a hymn of praise. From the CCLI list — and excluding hybrid remakes (like “Amazing Grace (My Chains Are Gone)”) — I would similarly exclude “How Great is Our God” (which is the exemplar of a 7-11 song). Perhaps “10,000 Reasons” or “Blessed Be Your Name,” but I would leave the final choice to the CCM fan on the top 10 committee.

So in the end, any list like this is a subjective one. The only objective way to measure “best” would be to look at a large population of selection over time — such as those hymns that were published in the broadest range of hymnals, either over many decades or among recent compilations.

I have been building a database of Anglican hymns (in Anglican hymnals); certainly Oremus has this list for the lyrics, but confirming which tunes are published where takes a little more work.

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